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Hell freezes over

coming to my senses?

in Product reviews , Sunday, August 30, 2015

I have spent a huge amount of time and effort over the years, not to mention a little money, trying to avoid using Adobe Lightroom. The various reasons for this include that I don’t much like the GUI (compared to Aperture, RIP), I don’t much like the library (compared to Aperture, RIP), and I’m uncomfortable with the Adobe subscription model. I also have a certain sense of antipathy towards the rather over the top, uncritical, fawning cheerleading which comes from so many on-line self-appointed gurus, all of whom have their book, or video, or workshop to sell, and all of whom have contributed, thanks to killer marketing skills from Adobe, to Lightroom’s supremacy. A successful symbiotic community, but not one which has done much service to the world of digital photography in general.

But is Lightroom itself actually all that bad? Well, no, it isn’t. It’s pretty good actually, but it is neither the Second Coming, nor is it without faults, nor is it as overwhelmingly superior as the shill wolf pack would have you believe. But looking at the combination of requirements that I have personally, I have to admit, finally, that avoiding it is like cutting off my nose to spite my face. So I’ve finally admitted that resistance is not only futile, but counterproductive as well.

Lrgrab

I certainly wasn’t expecting to be looking at this, a few weeks ago.

The quality of the output from the Develop module tends to get widely derided these days on the interwebs, especially compared with CaptureOne. I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect there is more than a grain of anti-Adobe sentiment behind this. The difference in quality, measured as resolution and definition, between all Raw converters on the market, is generally minimal. To my eyes Iridient Developer has a slight edge, but that may be down to its superlative sharpening tools. Yes, there are differences in colour rendition, but if you drill down a bit to understand why, then generally you can pretty much neutralise them. If utmost, 200% pixel peeping brick wall cat’s whiskers photography is your thing, then probably Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw is not what you need. But otherwise, the combination of features and sheer completeness of Adobe’s offering is difficult to ignore.

The Lightroom user interface still looks to me like it has overall design philosophy. Different modules, even tools within modules, look like they were designed and integrated by different people with little communication between themselves. Indeed, the different Modules behave more like separate applications linked together through a common launcher than parts of the same application. The essential weakness of the cumbersome modal design is betrayed by the Develop Module leaking into the Library Module by way of the Quick Develop tools. It’s a pity that either stubbornness, not-invented-here syndrome, or, most likely, be-suited MBAs clutching their ROI and P&L spreadsheets is preventing a major UI overhaul. And, think of all the income from the new editions of books, videos, etc!

But on balance the experience is positive. Compared with CaptureOne, the only real advantage that I find there is that the image adjustment tools are more intuitive and faster to use, and certain features such as perspective correction (especially), highlight recovery, and clarity control, are better. On the other hand Lightroom has far better support for camera calibration, and the sharpening tools are better. I prefer CaptureOne’s layer approach to Lightroom’s edit points, and I preferred Aperture’s local edits approach to both of these, but in the end the functionality is much the same.

The killer features in Lightroom are the Library, and, surprisingly, Lightroom Mobile. The Library is almost as good as Aperture’s. It is fast, smooth, and there are plenty of well designed metadata tools. The implementation of Stacks is a half-baked copy of Aperture’s (and really, it is, just look at when it was released in Lightroom), albeit more powerful than CaptureOne’s Versions, and the Smart Collections are weak compare to Aperture’s Smart Albums, but on balance, it is - now - the best on the market. Overall, compared with CaptureOne’s improving, but incomplete and laggy Catalog, Lightoom’s Library is much easier to use. And the other major plus for me, at least, is full support for large Photoshop and TIFF files, which means I can catalogue my film scans together with my Raw files. Aperture let me do this as well - indeed, the fact that Lightroom 1 had serious file size limitations was one major factor leading me to switch - but Lightroom actually is smoother.  The only “orphan” files I have now are Sigma Merrill Raws, but nobody supports those. The workaround of cataloging a proxy JPEG and using that to launch the X3F in Iridient Developer works just as well in Lightroom as in Aperture, or indeed CaptureOne.

I think that the dependence on a physical file structure in the Library is pretty prehistoric, compared to Aperture’s fully virtual organisation, but the geek contingent could never live with the loss of explicit control that the virtual approach required, so we’re stuck in the past.  On a side note, recently I completely restructured my physical file organisation, to try to make it more convenient to PhotoSupreme’s needs.  Aperture didn’t skip a beat: together with MacOS, it noticed that the referenced files had moved, and just adjusted itself. CaptureOne, or Lightroom, would have just given up and died. But thanks to Apple shifting lock stock and barrel in to the luxury personal accessory market, we’ve lost all that innovation.

Ironically, my file structure is actually quite clumsy. This is due to an earlier period when I was using Lightroom 1, for about a year, until moving to Aperture 2.  I had to live with the file organisation imposed by Lightroom. Since this basically has never changed, re-importing into Lightroom CC was not a big deal. I did try the Aperture Importer: it’s not as good as CaptureOne’s by a long way, but not as bad as people say it is - it does actually work, albeit very, very slowly.  However, since all it really does is carry over some metadata, and that can just as easily be accomplished by writing metadata to original files or XMP sidecars, there’s little point in it. Takes forever and a day too, and the workflow is very badly designed.

I wasn’t expecting much from Lightroom Mobile, because it doesn’t do what I thought I wanted, i.e. remote editing and curation of the Library. It also gets a poor press, because it doesn’t do what a lot of people want, i.e. act as a front-end mobile file importer. What it actually does do is give you access to selected parts of your library which you have already created on the desktop, and, via “cloud” synchronisation, it then allows you to review and rate these, and to apply quite a high degree of image manipulation. On my new iPad Air 2, this works very well indeed, and actually, it turns out it is pretty close to what I wanted. Keywording would be nice to have, but what it does give me is enough to keep me constructively engaged during daily train commutes. Also, Lightroom Mobile supports importing and synchronisation of photos taken with iDevices. I haven’t tried that yet, but it is interesting. However, it does seem to conflict with a lot that Mylio provides. Mylio does do things that Lightroom Mobile does not, for example importing new files in the field and synchronising them with home and backup destinations, but several key things that it does do, and Lightroom does not, for example key wording, it does rather weakly.  I’m not really sure yet if Mylio is really needed in a Lightroom-centric workflow.

Finally, a CC subscription to Lightroom also brings Photoshop CC 2015, which has some useful additions for working with film scans, not the least being the Camera Raw plugin. I’d heard vaguely about this, but I didn’t really realise how useful it could be to be able to use ACR adjustments on a layer for film scans. Sure, there are other ways of doing everything in Photoshop, but the ACR toolset is specifically designed for photography, and makes everything much faster. And the fact that it swallows a 350Mb 16 bit XPan scan without a murmur is pretty impressive.

So, over the last months, I have invested a lot of time successively in PhotoSupreme, CaptureOne, and Mylio, and at this point pretty much discarded all of them in favour of Lightroom (maybe not Mylio, I may still have a use for that, but development seems to have slowed). It’s completely against current trends to switch FROM CaptureOne TO Lightroom, which, given my track record and general disposition, is probably as good a reason for doing it than any. Switching to Lightroom and writing a nice review about Jeff Schewe in the same month ? I must be going soft in the head.

 

 

Replacing Aperture

the Great Leap Forward

in Product reviews , Thursday, March 12, 2015

The writing on the wall has gotten so large that even I can see it. It is crystal clear that Apple are never going to replace Aperture in any meaningful way. They are going to develop their “Photos” thing, which will let people look at thousands of photos on their watch (sorry, Watch). Well, fine. Whatever. I’m sure the shareholders are laughing all the way to the bank. Ten years ago, Apple made integrated hardware and software which provided a fantastic, frictionless way to manage and process digital photos. Now, they don’t. They make glitzy computers which look like dustbins or gold doorstops, which you can barely plug an external disk into. They make very, very dumbed down software, which ironically, is not even intuitive to use. And they run a chain of hugely successful luxury boutiques. They’re not heading down any road I want to go down.

So, time for a change. It hasn’t been an easy task to find a solution, but I think I’ve got there. I’ve discarded Adobe Lightroom, because it is so hideous it makes my eyes bleed. I’m skipping on Capture One because parts of it are just weird, it pitches too much at the high end, and the cataloging part is a bug -ridden, sluggish disaster area. But more important, I’m skipping both of these because I’ve learnt my lesson about relying on closed solutions.

The solution I’ve decided on is to use ID Imager PhotoSupreme as my cataloging tool, and Iridient Developer as my RAW Developer, with Adobe Photoshop CS6 for finishing, printing, and working on scanner-sourced files. PhotoSupreme is a cross-platform application built on top of an open-source SQL database. It acts both as an advanced cataloging tool, comparable to the venerable but obsolete MediaPro, and as a hub to other workflow applications. I’ve been running a trial for 30 days, and have just bought a license. There is some sign that PhaseOne has not given up on MediaPro, but I’ve given up waiting.

Photo Supreme window

A collection view in PhotoSupreme

PhotoSupreme takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve been using MediaPro for about 100 years, not to mention Aperture. Being old and stupid doesn’t help either. Neither does the rather patchy documentation (although an active and helpful user community where the developer participates is a big help). It has its own way of doing things, and newcomers need to take time to get in sync with it. Actually, I think I had a quick look at it a while back, and discarded it as lacking various features. Well, actually, there are very few features it lacks, but you need to work out where they are, and how they work. Once everything starts to click into place, it reveals itself as a very powerful application. I suppose the core difference between PhotoSupreme and MediaPro is that MediaPro encourages use of multiple catalogs, and PhotoSupreme doesn’t really, although it does support them. PhotoSupreme organisation metaphors are different to MediaPro’s but ultimately let you do the same things. But PhotoSupreme has one absolute killer feature, to me anyway: Version Sets.

Photo Supreme Version

Version Sets: the holy grail

PhotoSupreme’s Version Sets are like Aperture’s Stacks (and therefore Lightroom’s clumsy copy of the same). A Version Set collects various versions of the same image (or actually completely different images if you want). But it actually goes further than Aperture, and allows you to indicate the purpose of each version, through “placeholders”. So, you can have a master RAW (or a Silverfast HDR), a JPG for web, another JPG for Flickr, a PSD for printing. And you can add your own placeholders to the core set, pretty much ad-infinitum as far as I can see. The way in which Version Sets are displayed is a little confusing at first, but basically boils down to whether you have a physical (e.g folder) or logical (e.g collection) view open.

PhotoSupreme provides effective import tools for Aperture libraries and MediaPro catalogs, as well as other application formats. There is a single-user version which seems to work fine with several hundred thousand images (according to forum members - I’m nowhere near that prolific), but if that isn’t enough, there’s a heavy duty multi-user version.

All in all, this is a perfect front-end to Iridient Developer. ID has just hit version 3.0, and just keeps getting better. I won’t go into any detail about it here, I’ve written about Iridient a lot in the past. You can read a nice review of Version 3 here. ID can’t do any kind of local editing or pixel-based operations, so Photoshop remind on hand for that. And that’s fine, it’s what it’s good at.

The interesting thing about PhotoSupreme and Iridient Developer is that they’re both developed by one-man band operations, PS by Hert van Zwietering, and ID by Brian Griffith. And despite both inevitably having a few minor rough edges, they make the efforts of certain megaCorporations look pretty sad. And neither impose any kind of lock-in, either through software design, or through pay-or-lose-access rental schemes.

It’s still going to be a hell of a job transitioning from Aperture, but now I’m beginning to feel it will be an upgrade, not a downgrade.

 

Apple & Olympus

piggy bank quakes in terror

in GAS , Wednesday, February 11, 2015

A couple of announcements on the gear side of photography have sparked my interest in recent days. First, the emergence of the preview of Apple’s “Photos” application. This is supposed to replace both iPhoto and Aperture, although exactly what Apple means by “replace” might not quite match up with the expectations of long-term users of either application. The synchronisation between devices is something that’s been missing since the 3rd party Pixelsync was murdered by Apple, but otherwise there’s little to be optimistic about. On the Aperture side it looks fairly grim. Photos is showing some sign of innovation on the manipulation front, but the effort seems to have gone into a narrow range of tools. Aperture’s in-depth colour controls don’t seem to have been taken over, for example. That’s not good, as Aperture was lagging a bit behind competitors such as Lightroom and CaptureOne in that area anyway (although perhaps far less so that internet chatter would have you think). But on the organisation / editing side, it’s a total wipeout. There seems to be basically no tools at all. You get Apple’s hardwired idea of how your photos should be organised (“Moments”, “Collections”, etc) and that’s basically it. And as for metadata, well, someday perhaps. Maybe a third party plugin will support it. And that’s the basic issue - Apple wants us to wait, and wait, and wait, and then (maybe) rely on some 1-man band App Store plugin developer to provide Aperture feature parity.  Well, no thanks. This is not the sort of house of cards I want to entrust a lifelong endeavour to. Aperture was - and is - fabulous, but it clearly doesn’t fit into Apple’s corporate vision, and indeed probably never did. I suspect it was largely sustained, as a square peg in a round hole, by Steve Jobs’ foaming-at-the-mouth hatred of Adobe. Aperture was a throwback to Apple’s last-century culture. It has no place in the world of the iThing factory. Photos, on the other hand, is iThing to the core, which is probably excellent news for selfie addicts casual photographers and Apple shareholders.

The other news is from Olympus. The latest OM-D camera, the (deep breath) OM-D EM-5 Mark II, might tempt me where the OM-D series so far has not. The big deal for me is not the 64Mpix sensor-shift high resolution mode, although that is interesting, but rather the long awaited (by me at least) return of the swivel mounted rear screen, which was such a key feature of the E-3 & E-5 DSLRs. The EM5.2 also seems to carry over the rugged build of these two.  Olympus is pretty much the only company to have ignored the line that swivel screens are too fragile to include on weather sealed, pro-build quality cameras. I certainly never found any issues with their implementation on the E-3 & E-5, despite those cameras being roughly handled in a fine selection of aggressive environments. Unfortunately the E-5.2 does not have the phase detect auto-focus which provides full compatibility with Four Thirds lenses. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the EM1.2 for everything to fit together. But this time around, I might, possibly, be tempted. I’m due to visit the Icelandic highlands in the summer, and at present I don’t own a camera which would put up with much of the weather encountered in those regions.

 

An Aperture + Iridient Developer workflow

Me? Stubborn?

in Apple Aperture , Thursday, July 17, 2014

The recent boat-rocking move by Apple to announce the decline and fall of Aperture has led me through several stages of anger, denial and acceptance. And it has also led me to re-evaluate my digital imaging workflow. For a while I’ve had the feeling that, technically, my photos lack a certain something, compared to other work I see published. Perhaps I’ve been rather complacent in imagining that my knowledge and skills in post-production are adequate. So this as well gave me some impetus to explore options a bit. To cut a long story short, my decision has been to adopt a solution coupling Iridient Developer with Aperture. More on this a bit later, but first a few words on the solutions I rejected.

Icons

Photoshop: I’m not anti-Adobe, and their raw decoding is generally good. However, it has some (minor) issues with Olympus files, and it can’t handle Sigma Merrill RAW. Also, I find the Camera Raw interface ugly and clumsy, and since I do this stuff for fun, well that’s a factor. I do use Photoshop very frequently, but more for my film workflow. And I’m not happy about the subscription model, even though since InDesign is an important tool for me, I’ll probably have to give in one day. For now I have Creative Suite 6, and that’s just fine.

Lightroom: Not really a contender for me. Been there, done that. It is good at many things, but pretty much everything it does something else does better. For example cataloging, which both Aperture and MediaPro do better.

CaptureOne: I own C1Pro, so it was a strong contender. But I don’t really care for the default curves it applies, and generally the GUI can be frustrating. The DAM features in v7 are very substandard, and at the same time what little interactivity there was with MediaPro in v6 has been killed off. But basically the character of the output doesn’t fit in with my objectives. I feel that C1 is optimized for the fashion industry, even if some leading landscape photographers such as Joe Cornish and Steve Gosling use it. But then they own PhaseOne backs.

DxO Optics Pro: I took a serious look at DxO following an article by Kirk Tuck. A strong point is the “DxO Lens Softness” which provides initial high quality input sharpening with no artefacts. Definitely better than Aperture. But the headline feature, lens correction, leaves me a bit dubious. For micro four thirds camera/lens combinations, rather than apply the manufacturer corrections included in the image file, DxO clearly applies its own, and the results are different. The original framing is not respected (interestingly there is significant image data outside of the frame) and to my eyes some minor distortion remains. For four thirds combinations it seems to make some weird changes too. I’m not convinced. And it doesn’t handle Sigma files. But the output is good and highly detailed. Indeed, I was on the verge of buying it when from one moment to the next the special offer pricing was removed. €269 is way too much.

So, back to Iridient Developer (ID). I’ve written about this great application before, but since Aperture has been around, it’s always been a secondary tool for me. But with the release of v2, and a host of new features, including tighter integration with Aperture, and the fact that it handles Sigma files very well indeed, it’s been getting more use. And now, finally, I’ve put a little effort into setting up a streamlined workflow.

Following my discovery of DxO’s lens de-blurring, I decided to see if I could get a similar result from ID’s generous range of sharpening tools. And indeed I could. The R-L Deconvolution method, which is specifically designed to remove minor blur rather than traditionally sharpen, works extremely well. As do ID’s highly configurable Noise Reduction tools. So these two controls together give a good approximation of Aperture’s RAW Fine Tuning brick, only with noticeably better results. These then form the basis for a camera default preset. ID allows you to define default settings for each camera type you use and for each ISO level. I haven’t gone to quite that extent yet, but maybe one rainy Sunday I’ll give it a go.

Aperture, of course, does not support alternative RAW engines. There are manual workarounds to this, but they’re tedious. However ID has recently acquired a new feature which makes this much easier. Now, if I configure ID as my external editor in Aperture, and use this to open a version, Aperture as usual sends a rendered TIFF to ID. ID, however, does not open the TIFF, but looks for the associated RAW file and opens that. Then, when you’ve finished, ID overwrites Aperture’s TIFF with it’s output. Even better, if you then re-open the original in ID, the settings from the first edit are retained. Therefore you have a hybrid non-destructive / baked-in edit workflow, which is close to ideal. Obviously you end up with an extra TIFF for each image you process in this way, but disk space really isn’t an issue any more. And I don’t do this for every image I import, only for those I select to potentially publish or print. Aperture alone is more than adequate for general work.

Aperture 3

Sending an image to Iridient Developer from Aperture

Iridient Developer

Saving an edited image back to Aperture

Aperture 4

The original version and the ID-rendered TIFF stacked in Aperture. Note I add a custom metadata field to remind me that I processed this with Iridient. It would be nice to automate that.

For further editing beyond the initial RAW development you then have the choice between ID and Aperture’s RGB edit tools. Both have strong offerings: to pick one from each, Aperture’s generally ignored extended range curve tool, which together with its 32-bit architecture lets you modify the curve for values over 100% white, is very good for highlight recovery and rolling off harsh highlights. I don’t know of any other tool which can do this. Similarly, ID has a unique - in my experience - curve tool which operates on the Lab Chroma (ab) channel, allowing precise control over saturation.

Aperture 5

Aperture’s curve tool in extended mode

Aperture’s DAM tools are, in my opinion, second to none, and plenty of commenters agree with me. So having moved on from my initial furious reaction, I’ve come to cautiously give Apple the benefit of the doubt, and hope that the forthcoming migration to “Photos” might well be less traumatic than it initially appeared. Indeed it could, possibly, be as much of a paradigm buster as Aperture 1.0 was. We shall see. If I have to migrate my catalogue to a lesser tool, I’d rather do when all bridges are burned, not before. There’s no real downside in waiting. And in the meantime with this Aperture-Iridient workflow, I’m seeing appreciably better printed results.

Pity it’s only me who looks at them!

 

Further thoughts on Aperture’s demise

the morning after

in Apple Aperture , Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The dust is beginning to settle on the Aperture debacle, and I’ve had some time to think about it. It’s interesting to see some considered views from long term, expert Aperture bloggers. There’s a glass half full view here, and a glass half empty one here. I’d tend to say the latter was more realistic, but my glass remains ditheringly uncommitted. I’ve dusted off CaptureOne Pro 7 and Lightroom 5, and I find both competent in various ways, but both feel like downgrades from Aperture. Both are good enough, and feature some editing tools which are superior to Aperture’s (sharpening, in Lightroom, and keystone correction in both), but in general I still always come back to re-realising how good, if unassuming, Aperture actually is. The Aperture marketing team deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered. In terms of UI and DAM features, Aperture makes both look prehistoric. CaptureOne’s DAM toolset is a partial cut & paste from MediaPro, with plenty of critical bits missing. It’s a start, but general about as much use as chocolate teapot, not to mention very clunky to use. In theory CaptureOne interfaces with MediaPro. In any approaching realistic practice, it doesn’t. For example MediaPro knows nothing about CaptureOne’s variants, and CaptureOne is totally unaware of MediaPro’s hierarchic keywording. Both have a “catalog” concept, which are superficially similar but completely seperate. Basically it’s a total dog’s breakfast. The rendering of CaptureOne is quite interesting, in that it is quite unlike Aperture and Lightroom for my Olympus ORF files. CaptureOne has more saturated red tones, which are quite difficult to replicate. When evaluating CaptureOne, you do need to be aware of it’s unusual input tone curve feature, which defaults to “film standard”. In my opinion it’s better to start off with the “linear” option, at least until you get a feel for what it is doing. However, taking Olympus Viewer as a reference, Lightroom and Aperture are much closer than the CaptureOne default rendition.

And so to Lightroom. I used Lightroom v1 for about a year before moving to Aperture, so I know roughly what makes it tick. Lightroom 5 seems to have had all manner of bits glued onto it, and quite a lot of random changes. Some of this good, some less so, but the overall impression remains of someone trying to build a replica of Aperture in Lego. There is far too much clutter in the UI, and far too many options, many of which are squirrelled away in unlikely locations. It’s all pretty chaotic, and doesn’t seem to have had much overall design guidance. I think that in time it could be tamed and streamlined through use of keyboard shortcuts, but even so, I’m not why “Map”, for example, gets the same prominence as “Develop”. By using this ultra-modal approach, seems to me that Adobe’s designers painted themselves into a corner very early on. However, Lightroom has two key aspects: a massive installed user base, and endless web and print resources, paid for and free, some of which are very good. It also has an iPad client - not Adobe’s Lightroom Mobile, which even the cheerleaders seem unimpressed with, but the excellent 3rd party app, Photosmith, which has similar functionality to the late lamented Pixelsync (and thanks again for murdering that, Apple. Bastards).

So on the whole, Lightroom seems to come out on top. The problem there is that I’m really not enamoured about Adobe’s subscription model. Now, maybe, for 20 years, maybe, but if my circumstances change, or when I’m retired on a pension, Adobe’s monthly tax might become a big issue.

Anyway, when it comes down to RAW editing, even if for some reason Aperture doesn’t cut it for me, there’s really no reason why I can’t continue to catalogue in Aperture and edit elsewhere. I’m aLightroomeady doing this - I sometimes use Iridient, or Photo Ninja, or Photoshop, or Sigma DPP to process photos, and manage the output in Aperture. So the big issue really is the longevity of Aperture’s DAM features.

I’ve obviously had my eye off the ball as far as the DAM market is concerned. I used to follow it closely, hoping for a modern replacement for iView, but I gave up. In the meantime a very promising looking application called Photo Supreme has emerged. Apart from it’s inherent values, it looks to me that it could act as a metadata hub, or bridge, between various applications. It can read Aperture (and Lightroom, and CaptureOne) libraries, and it seems it can spit out data which others can then import. I haven’t had time to try it yet, but I will.

In the meantime, I’m not evaluating the fullness of my glass just yet. I’ll stick with Aperture for a while at least, but with a very clear eye on keeping everything ready to export.

 

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